Ixar, a slight, gangling teenager, nervously fidgeted in his chair as Judge Michael Baird stared him down. Babies' cries could be heard echoing through the halls, but it did not break the formal tension within the courtroom. Ixar's eyes flashed between the translator and Baird.
He had come a long way to get to this cramped courtroom in downtown Dallas' Earle Cabell Federal Building and Courthouse: On May 20, he entered the United States through the small town of Hidalgo. He had made his way there alone from El Salvador.
The court did not question how exactly he had gotten to the United States, or how long it took him to get there. We do know that his parents were both already here. Ixar says that for months before leaving El Salvador, he had been aggressively recruited by the local gangs, as so many boys there are. His father described how, after turning down membership, gangs had threatened to kill Ixar. So he fled.
Ixar's first appearance Dallas' immigration court was last week, when he asked for more time to get a lawyer. Prior to the recent political firestorm over Central American kids, Ixar would have been given weeks, even months, to find a lawyer and put together his case. But Baird ordered Ixar to return on Monday.
Immigration judges are under increasing pressure to move these cases through the system as quickly as possible, over the objection of lawyers and advocates who say finding a lawyer and preparing a claim for asylum or other relief takes more time than they're being given.
"They're setting these cases very quickly now," says Bill Holston, director of the Human Rights Initiative, which represents refugees seeking asylum in the United States. "We're really having to scramble."
After he was given a brief extension last week, Ixar's family scrambled to find a lawyer. But on such short notice, no one would take his case, his father said. Instead, Dad was left to navigate the complex world of U.S. immigration law to argue his son's case. After Ixar's story was shared, Baird determined he might have an asylum case. Ixar and his father were given applications for asylum, to be filled out -- in English -- and returned in three days.
But three days, Holston says, isn't enough time.
"It's a very complicated procedure. You have to check every box, and there's very little tolerance for mistakes," he says. "Even minor inconsistencies are used against the applicant, so if you're doing it in a hurry and you make a factual error on a date or address the court can hold that against you, and that can fatal to the case. If it's determined to be a frivolous application, the applicant can face a lifetime bar on US immigration benefits. Now that's a very harsh ruling."
When Ixar appears in court again, he will have been given less than two weeks in total to appeal his right to stay in the United States. And if his father, with his limited English, makes a single mistake on the asylum form, 16-year-old Ixar could face a lifetime ban on lawful immigration to the United States. Faced with those odds, it would be no small wonder -- and maybe even the wisest play -- if Ixar simply elected to slip under the immigration radar rather than return to the streets of El Salvador.
Holston says clients had previously been given around 60 days to find a lawyer and build a case. Now immigrants across the country are being shuttled through the court system within about three weeks.
That condensed timeline was obvious in the case of Josue, who also appeared in court on Monday. A boy of about 16 from Honduras, he entered the United States on April 14. His first appearance was in August. And by Monday, with his Dad unable to afford a lawyer or find a pro bono one, he was running out of time and options. "I would like my son to stay. We need more time," Dad said softly in Spanish, but Baird determined that Josue was not eligible to stay. Josue opted to voluntarily remove himself on December 9. His sojourn here will have lasted less than eight months, far less time than most asylum cases take.
Jordan, an 11-year-old boy from Honduras, may face the same fate. His mother, Jessica, had come to the United States to find work and had left Jordan in the care of her grandmother when he was 2 months old. After more than 10 years, it was evident that Jordan was severely neglected: With increasing local gang worries and an infirm caretaker, Jessica paid a smuggler $4,000 to bring him to the United States.
He crossed the border on May 28 and was immediately apprehended. couldn't afford a lawyer so Jessica appeared on his behalf. Given more time, Jessica might have been able to find a pro bono lawyer to take the case, or scrape together the money, or even better prepare herself. But that time no longer exists.
"This truly is about due process. Immigrants have fewer constitutional rights, but that doesn't mean they have none," Holston says. "The ones we're talking about have legal relief available, but they're not given the time to find a lawyer and argue the case. That's a due process argument. And these are difficult cases to develop. Some of these children have been through terrible things, and to compress that into a couple of weeks to develop the case, thats very hard."
Like Ixar, Jessica was given asylum forms to be completed within three days; they'll be back in court Thursday, presumably to learn what future awaits Jordan. Unlike Ixar's father, she seemed to understand it wasn't good, and she began to cry when she received the forms. Baird is a neutral and tough judge, but he has flashes of human kindness. At Jessica's tears, Baird softened and addressed Jordan.
"You take care of your mother, young man," he said. "She needs your help."